MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. » Former tech CEO Carly Fiorina, hailed for her performance at the second GOP debate, held roughly 1,000 Michigan Republicans in silence Saturday, broke them up in laughter and then brought them to their feet in cheers and chants of "Carly, Carly."
"I am a fearless fighter. I will not falter. I have been tested and I will fight this fight," said Fiorina, one of five GOP presidential candidates to address the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.
Most of the other Republicans seeking the party’s presidential nomination were pitching their agendas to more than 1,000 party conservatives at an event sponsored by the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition.
Businessman Donald Trump, the front-runner in polling, used part of his speech in Iowa to defend himself against critics who said he should have corrected a man at a rally on Friday when he asserted, incorrectly, that President Barack Obama was a Muslim and not an American. Trump said he would have faced criticism if he had jumped in and read aloud tweets he sent in his defense, including one that read: "Am I morally obligated to defend the president every time somebody says something bad or controversial about him? I don’t think so."
Fiorina, whose physical appearance Trump criticized in an interview, continued her subtle jabs at the television personality and real estate mogul. "Leadership isn’t defined by position, or title, or how big your office is, your airplane, your helicopter, your ego," she told Michigan Republicans.
In the historic Grand Hotel on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, Fiorina joined former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul for the three-day conference that has become a regular stop for GOP presidential candidates and attracted more than 2,300 overall.
Michigan offers the most delegates of the three primary contests on March 8 and follows closely early nominating races in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Republicans also view Michigan as more competitive for the general election than at any time since 1988, the last time a GOP presidential candidate carried the state.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker scratched the Michigan event — for the second time — because a charter flight he arranged was grounded in Chicago due to inclement weather, aides said. Walker had accepted an invitation to open the conference as the keynote speaker Friday night with Bush, but canceled due to travel constraints, then rescheduled for Saturday morning.
"We have moved heaven and earth to get him here," Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel told those who attended Saturday’s breakfast expecting to hear Walker.
Walker attended the forum, put on by an evangelical conservative group, in Iowa, where he has seen his lead among likely Republican caucus goers disappear in the past two months. The scheduling wrinkle came as he scaled back his initially ambitious campaign for president to focus on neighboring Iowa, a scramble meant to reassure jittery donors and supporters after a quiet performance in the debate.
Walker sought to distinguish himself as a proven government reformer by comparing himself to surging rivals such as Fiorina, who was CEO of Hewlett Packard, and Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon.
"You wouldn’t hire me to be a neurosurgeon … you wouldn’t want to hire me to run HP," Walker said. "But if you want somebody who’s taken on the Washington-based special interests and won … then I ask for your support, I ask for your vote."
Ohio’s Kasich continued the appeal he made during the debate for the government to offer a hand up to people as a way to broaden the party. "When we do better, people who live in the shadows cannot be ignored," he told Michigan Republicans. "If you’re in a minority community we want you to be lifted, we want you to be part of everything."
Before dashing to attend the South Carolina-Georgia college football game in Athens, Georgia, Bush on Friday evening had a message similar to Kasich’s. Bush has begun hitting back aggressively since Trump used a dire description of the state of the country and negative characterizations of Mexican immigrants to win support. Bush said Republicans need to show middle-class voters feeling left behind in by the economy and traditionally Democratic voting groups such as African-Americans that GOP policies benefit them.
"If we are serious about winning, we need to be on their side and assume that they want to achieve earned success, because they do," Bush said.
Saturday evening, Kentucky’s Paul described Republicans such as Jeb Bush as "Democrat light" and said "I couldn’t disagree more" with modest reforms. "I think we can be boldly for what we’re for and get new voters," Paul said.
Cruz spoke to a lunchtime audience in Michigan before joining the Iowa group as its final speaker. In his evening remarks, he criticized Republican congressional leaders, saying they were not doing enough to defund Planned Parenthood and that they were "trying to pound all of us into submission."
He added: "If conservatives unite, this primary is over. What Washington wants, what the Washington establishment wants, is to divide us."
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former New York Gov. George Pataki also spoke at the Iowa forum.
Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey in Iowa and David Eggert in Michigan contributed to this report.